Tabletop Game Design (Homebrewing a system)

I’ve spent quite a while looking for a system that would satisfy my wants for a tabletop game. I’m looking for something that splits the difference between war games, board games and RPGs. A tactical miniatures game that can manage an array of character designs. Something that has the strength of interesting combat from war games, the story and player generated content of an RPG and the tight design of a board game. What I really want is to be able to do a dungeon crawl where the players can define their style of combat, and I can define their enemies from a core ruleset. I’m sure if I was familiar enough with any of the big RPG systems, I could hack together something e.g. from GURPs or D&D, but I’m not willing nor am I able to get the playtime needed to have such a base understanding of the system. And even then I’d imagine I’d always feel a little lost in the system. More than that, I’ve come to like things from different systems, and my gaming group has certain requirements that I figure I can put together something myself. So, I decided to build my own dungeon crawl system.

I’ve been thinking about what to base a system on for the past few hours. A game I really like is Savage Worlds. I played a two year campaign with it, that had a lot of combat. I enjoyed the basic idea where your stat decided which dice your roll (so D4 was basic knowledge of something, D8 you were more than capable of something and D12 was getting towards mastery.) However, I found that the system ended up with rote combat. It was a bit like an MMO where you could more or less macro your combat decisions for any situation. A game that has countered the “rote” aspect, albeit with a different intention is Malifaux. They wanted to get around the way that luck of the dice was such a deciding factor, so they use a deck of cards instead of dice, and you can “cheat in” a good card from your hand rather than take a particular card flip from the deck. And that to me is a really interesting mechanic. It’s removed something from the intricacy of the actual combat, instead putting an abstracted decision to the player to give a sense of urgency and flow to the battle on the table. Finally, I like the bell curve idea in GURPs, where the 3D6 form a curve of predicted results, tending towards the middle. Where with D20 systems, you instead have a hugely variable dice plus a guaranteed stat making for no real prediction, and where there’s no real change in actual power levels, because numbers are just getting boosted all over.

The basic idea I’ve come up with so far is something following from the Malifaux idea of an abstracted player decision affecting the flow of in world combat. I’ve broken the main combat stats into three different categories, with two resulting stats. And a further division of one of those stats into another two stats constituting the typical to hit/damage dealt divide.

An image of what I’m suggesting:

Each character would get say, 14 skill points to divide between the three stats, Eight in one, Four in another and Two in the last. The skill points represent dice available to each stat. A barbarian would have eight in Rage, an archer would have eight in Nerve, and a mage would have eight in Magic. And once those skill points have been decided they can be changed on a tactical level, increasing or decreasing the two resultant stats as the flow of combat dictates.

Let’s take a barbarian: that player’s initial decision in combat would be how to divide his eight skillpoints between Strength or Pain. Pain would represent HP, or tanking ability (I haven’t thought if this would be a simple number that reduces to represent health, or a dice roll to show resistance to damage like a soak, etc.) He could be a glass cannon and put say seven in Strength and one Pain. He’d be able to do an enormous amount of damage, but take relatively little “pain” before he passes out. The next decision is once the division of dice between the two main stats has been made, and that’s dividing the strength dice between his to hit dice and his damage dice. A higher chance to hit with low damage, or low chance to hit with high damage. Here I’m thinking that there’s going to be yet another split, between having one big dice with a possible wild swing in results but with greater minimums and maximums (say 1D20,) or between rolling many smaller dice in a pool, choosing the best dice (3D12 pick your best, or even something like 2D12 pick one + 1D4.)

The idea behind this division of stats is that you’re mechanising the flow of a character and his abilities and the flow of the combat encounter. The initial decision of whether to take the offensive and go in all (figurative) guns blazing with little defense, to tank damage with little offensive effect (maybe your magic users or archers are doing more important stuff) or to average out between the two.

There’s a similar dichotomy with the other two main stats, with Nerve do you go for precise attacks but slowly, or lots of little, unaimed attacks quickly. The idea I have between the split in Nerve’s Precision is the basic “to hit” dice, and the “map” stat giving the character a map of vulnerable areas. At zero level, there’s an overall damage range that can be inflicted, an averaged out basic damage level. At middle levels, things like arms, neck, feet and torso come into play that can be chosen. At a high level you could go for extremely precise things, like eyes, specific organs, etc…

With magic there’s again a split between two main stats, your effect stat which contains the “to hit” part, i.e. do you get your spell off, and your actual effect with magic, so damage with the spell, the duration of the spell, etc. The primary split between the two is with “Draw” which is how much magic/mana you can pull from the air around you. And I was thinking of abstracting this a level even more by having varying mana per hex or square. So if you gave low points to “Draw” you’d only be able to pull from the hex you’re on, middle levels you can draw from two or three hexes, higher levels you can pull from all around you, and even from hexes beyond your immediate area.

Finally there’s the interplay between the three main stats. A barbarian would obviously be effective at simply smashing about, but if they statted up in Nerve, they might be able to smash stuff really fucking quickly, or if they went for the “map” part they could impact big hits on precise areas. Alternatively a barbarian could take the magic skill as their second stat, and that’s why I have “&secondary” in the magic stat, so that’s where enchanted weapons would come into it, a fire sword would use the effect(&secondary) part, while magic armour would need to take from “draw.”

I have a lot to think about. This was just my first afternoon of thinking about a way to play a dungeon crawl game. I haven’t gone into any precise details or even thought about balancing. I’d like to hear if you have any ideas on the interplay between the stats at the moment, and what you think about the abstracted level of dice distribution. I know while writing it down it seemed like a lot of nitpicky bits for a combat game. However I don’t think it’s too nitpicky for a more tactical game, where I’m hoping it would represent the idea of the flow in a battle with upsides and downsides to every decision. And I think that if you had a little card with a dials on it (like used in a lot of boardgames) it’d work out for a workable tabletop game.

As a GM, I’d have a heck of a time balancing encounters because with a system like you describe it seems like a player could make a choice (for example the barbarian laying it all into strength), and then one bad die role gets him dead. And, as you say, it could get kinda nitpicky.

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I like a game to give basic odds on completing a certain action, but the variables the PC and the GM control are the hows (just hit bad guy,hit bad guy in the eye, etc) and the environment (bad guy in open, bad guy in cover, etc). Systems like this just seem more natural to me, and players understand so the game flows.